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Sonja Steptoe
February 11, 1991
Susan Butcher is mushing towards record fifth win in the Iditarod race
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February 11, 1991

The Dogged Pursuit Of Excellence

Susan Butcher is mushing towards record fifth win in the Iditarod race

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Every evening before dinner in late summer and early fall, before there's enough snow for real mushing, she divides the dogs into teams of five or more for training runs. On this day, she and her assistants hitch the harnessed dogs to a gang line and hook it to a 350-pound all-terrain vehicle. Butcher hops in the driver's seat, puts the vehicle in fifth gear, and the dogs pull the 490-pound load for four miles, at an average speed of 15 mph. As the team trots down her muddy driveway, up and down steep hills and through creeks, she studies the dogs through yellow-tinted goggles that protect her eyes from the mud, water and dust the animals and the tires kick up. She notes which huskies trot like champions and which pairings work best. Like any coach, she cajoles, encourages and occasionally scolds her team.

Early in the run, the lead dog decides to take a breather in the creek, so the whole team stops. A perturbed Butcher crouches over the handlebars of the stalled vehicle and orders the dogs to get moving again. At the sound of her insistent All right! Go! command, they are off again. "The hard part is turning them into fine mental athletes willing to go the extra mile," she says as the team heads down a trail beside the one-lane road in front of her compound.

Butcher breeds each dog for speed and endurance, and as they grow, she tries to instill in them the same drive, desire and determination found in her own deep well of those traits. On strolls with her puppies, she watches to see which are willing to follow her anywhere—through mud, to the top of a glacier, to the edge of a cliff. Those are the athletes she wants on her team. She has also been known to go on solo runs or camp out with a dog who is having problems.

"The animal husbandry and breeding we do is hard work, but it's important," says 1989 Iditarod champ Joe Runyan. "Susan realized it early on."

Butcher's archrival, Swenson, acknowledges her skills. She is "real good as far as training her team goes," he says. Butcher and Swenson, whose houses are three miles apart, were once friends. He was a "bridesmaid" at Butcher and Monson's 1985 wedding, held in her dog yard in Eureka, and his wife, Cathy, baked the wedding cake. Now, neither Swenson nor Butcher will talk about when or why their friendship turned sour. But it seems to have started about the time Butcher began winning the Iditarod.

Despite his role as Butcher's bridesmaid, Swenson is a man's man. Rumor has it that he vowed to walk home if he was ever beaten by a woman in a sled-dog race, but Swenson denies having said it. Still, he took some grief from his male friends in 1985 after finishing the Iditarod in fourth place, behind Libby Riddles, who won the race and became the first female Iditarod champion. Every year since then, he has come in behind Butcher in the race.

Over the years, Swenson has offered an array of reasons to discount Butcher's accomplishments. And as she got closer to equaling his record, his excuses for losing took on an air of exasperation. He griped that she had no real ability, only a strong lead dog, a husky named Granite. Late in the 1987 race, after it was clear that Butcher would win her second Iditarod with Granite leading her team, Swenson was livid. "When she loses that lead dog, she'll realize she's not as good as she thinks she is," he said, practically spitting the words. (For the record: In winning the Iditarod last year, Butcher's team ran just the first 200 miles with Granite, who was dropped from the team after tearing a toenail.) Butcher says Swenson once accused her of using witchcraft and mind control on her dogs. He won't comment on that, or say much else about her methods now. "I don't want any part of a story written about her that I'm involved in to be negative," Swenson says. "Every time I get interviewed about her, I wind up looking like a jerk."

Joe Redington Sr., Pam's father-in-law, has known Butcher and Swenson for years. "Rick's not overly fond of Susan, and I don't know whether he ever was," Redington says.

Swenson recently advocated a handicapping system for the Iditarod that would allow mushers who weigh more to run with more dogs than mushers who weigh less. Under such a system, Swenson, who is 6'4", 190 pounds, would start with, say, 20 dogs. A smaller musher, like the 5'6", 140-pound Butcher, would be allowed something like 14 or 16. Currently, mushers of all shapes and sizes start with at least seven and no more than 20 dogs. They are not allowed to add or switch dogs after the start, but they can drop dogs from the team at checkpoints when strategy or a dog's health warrants it. Swenson claims lighter racers have an unfair advantage because their dogs have less weight to pull and consequently don't have to work as hard as dogs pulling a heavier musher. But Jonrowe, who weighs 125 pounds, and Runyan, 175, say the strategic decisions a musher makes during the race are far more crucial to the outcome than the weight a team is pulling. Moreover, Jonrowe says, whatever advantage a smaller musher may have vanishes when the musher has to maneuver the sled—which weighs as much as 200 pounds when it's full of gear and dog food—up an icy sidehill or around a tree. Last summer, mushers rejected the handicapping proposal by a vote of 40-21.

Butcher abhors the brouhaha over male-female differences, especially when people use them to denigrate her accomplishments. "As long as I wasn't a factor, it was O.K. that I was breaking trails in an area where they didn't want women," she says. "But when I started to get good, there was a lot of resentment."

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